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Tuesday, 21 August 2018
Page: 7997


Ms BURNEY (Barton) (18:29): I rise, as part of the Labor team, to support the Farm Household Support Amendment (Temporary Measures) Bill 2018. I've listened carefully to many of the speakers in this debate and I think we are at one in understanding how important the Farm Household Support Act is. I'll come to that in a moment.

At the outset, I want to say that I come to this debate wearing several hats. As the shadow minister for families and social services, and, until recently, the shadow minister for human services, I have a great deal of interest in the way in which this particular measure works within the social security system. I also come to this discussion as the member for Barton, which is in southern Sydney. But I grew up in the country. I grew up in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, in a tiny little hamlet called Whitton. The whole economy of that town depended on farms doing well, because most of the people who lived there were farmhands in the area. I also come to this debate as someone who was raised by my great-uncle, who was a drover and a stockman on Kooba Station, which was the big station not far from where I grew up. I grew up, as I said, in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. I lived across the road from rice farms. I remember well the importance of the irrigation system, and I spent many, many hours of my youth playing in the rice farms, in the stubble once the rice was cut, building forts and so forth. So I well understand the issues around farming. I want to make sure people understand that in this discussion.

This bill proposes to amend the Farm Household Support Act 2014. The act provides support for eligible farmers and their partners, including one-on-one case support, an activity supplement for planning and training, and an income support payment. I think it's really important to listen to the speakers in this particular debate—that, whilst this is one measure, it is certainly not the only measure that both the government and the opposition have announced around this protracted drought.

The drought has many people, in the city and in the country, working towards providing relief for the drought and, in particular, for farming families. I can only imagine the heartbreak for farming families that have spent years and years building up their herds and their properties, only to see something that's completely out of their control having such a devastating effect—and that is drought.

Drought is not a new phenomenon, of course, for Australia, the second driest continent on earth. It is a part of what we understand. But we also understand—and it's undeniable—that climate change is having a terrible effect, not only in Australia but right across this world, to the point where you would have to ask whether some parts of this blue planet are going to be habitable into the future.

The Farm Household Support Act provides support for eligible farmers, as I said: one-on-one case support, an activity supplement for planning and training, and an income support payment. This bill will extend the period of support from three years to four years, which underpins the length of time it will take for many farmers to recover. The bill will also increase the farm asset limit from $2.635 million to $5 million, and that's an important element of this particular measure. This bill will also introduce a new two-part payment supplement to qualifying farm household allowance recipients. Labor believes that farmers should be able to receive the two-part payment in one single lump sum, which will get support to farmers who need it urgently. I understand that that is not going to be possible, but I'll obviously take advice on that.

Our farmers make a tremendous contribution to the economy and to Australian society. It is part of the cultural milieu of Australia and it is very much a part of how Australia has grown. Labor believes that farmers should be able to receive the two-part payment in one lump sum. Farmers' resilience is not only inspiring; it puts food on our tables and has had an enormous impact on the economic fortunes of this country.

We know that farmers are a proud people. We know that many will be reluctant to accept assistance. I say to farmers who are really in need of assistance to try and think about this not as charity—it is not charity—it is what you are eligible for and it is a temporary measure. In that context, it is very, very appropriate and important that farmers access this assistance. To those farmers second-guessing whether they should accept assistance, I would say: don't wait for things to get really, really past the point of being able to be fixed. If you're eligible for assistance, please use it.

The member for Calare made the points about how challenging these forms are. We know that many farmers who are eligible for this assistance have not accessed it. We know that 15,000 farmers, or two-thirds of eligible farmers, have not taken up farm household allowance. I think part of it is pride, and perhaps part of it is the exhaustion that we have heard spoken about so passionately in this House tonight. But there is no doubt that the bureaucracy and the length and the complexity of the forms is making it extremely difficult to access. Many have found the application process so complex they are simply not applying for assistance. We know that many Australians are finding it more and more difficult to contact and access Centrelink, and this includes the farm household allowance.

Over the past two years, the government has cut 2,500 staff from the Department of Human Services, which administers Centrelink and therefore the farm household allowance. We have seen payment wait times increase and we've seen phone wait times also increase, once again, making it extremely difficult for farmers to make contact and get some clarification about the complexity and what they need to do to qualify for these forms. This is not appropriate in this time of need. The government has already begun to outsource 2,500 Centrelink jobs to labour-hire firms as a bandaid response to the blow-out in wait times. Income support is complex, and that's why it's so important for Centrelink to have permanent full-time staff who are properly trained to assist with complex matters arising in income support. This is one such matter. Labor believes all Australians, including our farmers, should be able to access help if or when they need it. They shouldn't be forced to wait or go without.

Our farmers are incredibly tough and resilient people. This is a long and difficult drought. We are now entering our eighth year of drought. I was talking to the minister the other day who said that there seems to be very little relief in sight. This is some such relief, and farmers should not have to worry about difficulties of navigating a complex bureaucratic process. This month Labor announced it would boost Centrelink staff numbers by 1,200 permanent, full-time, qualified and well-trained staff. We will deploy 100 specifically trained Centrelink community response officers to go out and provide face-to-face assistance to those facing drought, including two additional mobile service centres, doubling the current capacity. This means these mobile centres can actually go to where there is a crisis. It might not be drought—it might be flood or it might be some other difficult situation—but it means that there is a doubling of the resources in terms of mobile service centres. They will guide those requiring assistance through the application process as well as assess for any further assistance that may be required, including financial counselling and health services. We cannot forget that those things are important.

Of course, as people have point out, it is not just farmers but it is communities that rely on farmers to be doing well, particularly things like service stations and other businesses in towns that are in rural and regional New South Wales. This will help to ensure that farmers are receiving the necessary assistance as quickly as possible.

As my colleague, the member for Hunter, has so rightly pointed out, this drought will require a coherent, long-term drought policy. It will require broader discussion about the government's commitment to address climate change—I know other people have spoken about that at length. For now, we need to focus on ensuring that farmers receive the assistance they need so that they can focus on getting through the drought.

I finish by once again reiterating that this is not charity. This is not a handout. This is assistance that you as a farmer have a right to, and it is a temporary measure, so please access it. I know that there is pride involved. I know that many farmers are not used to this kind of process. I know that it is a difficult process, but it is your right.